MMQB Mail: Thoughts on Browns, Titans, Steelers, Saints ... and food
Cleveland Browns recruited Mike Holmgren the right way
Titans are sentimental favorites, but road to playoffs is steep
Mailbag questions on coach of the year and NBC studio food
How did Randy Lerner get Mike Holmgren? Can the Titans make it? Was Mike Tomlin right? Are the Saints flawed? Is Clay Mathews in Clay Matthews' league? Can Brett Favre and Brad Childress kiss and make up?
Quick takes on the events of the week:
The Browns recruited Mike Holmgren the right way. We all want to be loved. Holmgren still feels the sting from getting his GM powers taken from him in Seattle five years ago, and the reason he wasn't into returning to the Seahawks when they called last week was owing in part to him being just a piece of the puzzle in the front-office structure. In Cleveland, he'll invent the structure.
Holmgren told me 13 months ago how he's coached in the northwest, west and midwest, and that being part of one of the traditional eastern franchises really appealed to him. Cleveland's more Midwest than east, obviously, but it's one of those traditional NFL cornerstones with great history and rabid fans that appeals to him.
And the owner, Randy Lerner, didn't pressure Holmgren. He knew that leaning on him wasn't going to get it done; he knew he had to give Holmgren time to think about this and to do it his way. This week is a good example why Holmgren's taking the job. In an ideal world, the Browns would have loved to get this done and announced Monday or today; but Holmgren and his family wanted a peaceful Christmas week. So that's what they have.
Now, looking ahead, the Browns need an answer at quarterback. With Brady Quinn (foot) out for the year, Holmgren has to look at tape and decide if Quinn's the guy going forward or if the Browns need to get one, and then use Derek Anderson as the bridge to the 2010 rookie. The Browns are in good position to take advantage of a deep draft in 2010, with 11 picks (extra third-, fifth-, fifth- and sixth-round picks) and a salary structure the current regime fixed to be in manageable shape.
With Cleveland playing better the past couple of weeks, it's not a slam dunk that Holmgren will come in and clean out the coaching staff. Eric Mangini has gotten votes of confidence from a few players recently, and the team showed a lot of fight in victories over Pittsburgh and Kansas City. It's hard for me to imagine Holmgren keeping Mangini because I think he prefers someone who coaches the West Coast scheme he believes in (Marty Mornhinweg perhaps). But we'll see when he puts Mangini under his microscope after the New Year.
The Titans have one big problem in 7-7 land. And I'm not talking about the loss of defensive leader Keith Bulluck for the season with a knee injury, which is a big blow, especially with offensive juggernaut San Diego coming to town in three days. Of the six 7-7 teams in the AFC (and, mind you, they're a game behind the current two wild-card leaders, Denver and Baltimore), Tennessee is a long shot, unfortunately.
I say unfortunately because any team that starts 0-6, losing its sixth game by 59 points, and then goes 7-1 with the one loss a fourth-quarter toughie to the undefeated Colts, has to be a sentimental favorite. But the conference record is the most important of the potential tiebreakers, and with two weeks to play, Jacksonville (6-4), Miami (5-5), the Jets (5-5), Pittsburgh (4-6) and Houston (4-6) all stand better than 4-7 Tennessee.
"What I told the team last week is, 'Stranger things have happened,' '' Jeff Fisher told me in the wake of Sunday's overtime win over Miami. "When you start off the way we did, all you can do is play your best every week, try to win every game and then hope you get some help. And if Baltimore has to lose two, and Denver, Houston, Jacksonville and Pittsburgh have to lose at least one ... I mean, like I said, stranger things have happened. Just watch.''
Mike Tomlin was very, very lucky. I feel the same way about onside-kicking with a lead and four minutes left as I did about Bill Belichick's fourth-and-two call last month in Indianapolis: I don't like it. I know why Tomlin did it: He didn't trust his defense, and he wanted Ben Roethlisberger to have a chance to drive the Steelers downfield to win if indeed the Packers scored, and he figured he'd rather take his chances of the element of surprise and recovering the onside kick. But it's still wrong. I don't like telling Dick LeBeau and the reigning defensive player of the year (James Harrison) and one of the all-time proud Steelers warriors, James Farrior, that they're not good enough to keep Aaron Rodgers from going 80 yards.
The reason Belichick got killed and Tomlin's simply taking heat is simple: Tomlin's logic, faulty though it may be, did not prevent a Pittsburgh victory. New England didn't convert the fourth-and-two and ended up losing. When a daring play works, it's a smart play; when it doesn't work, it's dumb. I still don't think Tomlin's call was a good one, but the Steelers saved his bacon.
The problem with the Saints on offense is ... well, there's not just one. Mind you, I think they'll get them fixed. Not sure they'll be fixed to the point where they'll win a Super Bowl, but what ails New Orleans can be spackled and sanded and primed and painted. Three things:
-- Left tackle Jermon Bushrod's confidence has to be shot after getting turnstiled by DeMarcus Ware. The Saints have to help him significantly in the next two games, particularly when he goes against Julius Peppers in the last game of the regular season
-- I think New Orleans made the right move in signing a young tight end, Tory Humphrey, this morning. They have an excellent tight end, David Thomas, who, by my count, lined up at fullback, tight end, motion man, in the slot and at a split receiver slot Saturday night against Dallas. But they needed to get another tight end in the fold, particularly with Jeremy Shockey hobbled by a bad toe.
-- And I think they have to do just what Drew Brees said Saturday night. "We have to play faster.'' More short and intermediate routes getting receivers the ball close to the line of scrimmage and letting them run after the catch.
Clay Matthews, 14 games into his NFL career, has become the Packers' biggest playmaker. The Green Bay outside linebacker, son of the longtime NFL linebacker, either sacked or pressured Ben Roethlisberger five times Sunday, had another strip-sack overturned by a replay reversal, tackled Willie Parker for a two-yard loss, forced left tackle Max Starks into false-start and holding penalties, and catapulted himself into the defensive rookie of the year race. He, Washington pass-rusher Brian Orakpo, Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd and Houston outside linebacker Brian Cushing are the leaders of the defensive rookie pack.
At Heinz Field on Sunday was Mark Malone, the color man for the Westwood One radiocast of the Steelers-Packers game, and the former Steelers quarterback said of Matthews, "He reminds me so much of his old man. Just the relentlessness and the playmaking ability. He ran around Max Starks, bull-rushed him, caused him to jump offside. He's something. I think he's probably more physical and stronger than his father.''
Stay tuned on Favre. I just watched Favre's Sunday night press conference again. And I saw something abnormal after bad Favre losses. He was almost beyond grim -- a cross between angry and resigned. Watch it again and see if you see it. With the many reports of Favre and Childress in conflict several times this year, culminating in a spat Sunday night when Favre wouldn't come out of the game against Carolina, you can be sure the two will say all the right things when they surface Wednesday. They're on the same page, they love each other, etc.
But what drove Mike Holmgren crazy when he coached was Favre sometimes over-audibling. Mike McCarthy thought he had it managed well; Favre was more of a game plan runner than a game plan changer, and the Pack succeeded doing it that way.
I'd heard at one point this season that offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell had to talk Childress out of pulling Favre from a game. Now it seems like that incident might not have been uncommon. Childress is strident about his game plans, from what a couple of Vikings have told me, and feels if they've gone to the trouble of spending the week figuring out what will work in the game, the quarterback should carry that out. Favre's view, I'm sure, is that he's out there, and he sees and feels what works best.
But that look on Favre's face, and the monotone of his voice ... that's why I think this isn't over. I think no matter what's said to smooth this over, there's going to be some residue the rest of the way -- and it could be a factor in whether Favre returns to the Vikings in 2010.
Now onto your e-mail for the week:
THE LEAGUE DECIDES IT. From Dan of Charlotte: "I've asked this before but thought I would try one more time in light of a possible upcoming scenario. What exactly are the rules surrounding the NFL's flex scheduling? I am thinking specifically of Week 17 and whether or not it is possible for the potential showdown between the Cowboys and Eagles to be flexed into prime time. I have heard some say since the earlier Dallas-Philadelphia game was on NBC that this one can't be, is that correct? I figured since you work there, you would be able to answer this one! Thanks.''
The Week 17 Sunday night game is picked by the league's scheduling czar, Howard Katz, and commissioner Roger Goodell, with no input from the networks. The game with the most compelling playoff implications, or the game with the most compelling story (for instance, the Colts going for a 16-0 season) would be the choice of the league.
Whereas in Weeks 11 through 16, FOX and CBS can block games from being flexed to Sunday night, the Week 17 decision is made with only one thing in mind: What game will get the most eyes nationwide? And right now, my guess is that game will be Dallas-Philadelphia. But there's one asterisk there: It's possible that both teams could be playing Sunday night with playoff spots clinched if the Giants lose earlier in the day at Minnesota. So let's see how this weekend's games play out first before making that call.
GLAD I HAVE 17 WEEKS TO FIGURE THIS ONE OUT. From Chris of Green Bay: "As we round into the last two weeks of the regular season, do you see a clear-cut candidate for coach of the year?''
No. Not at all. I'd say there are five contenders: Jim Caldwell, for hitting the ground running and coaching a possibly perfect team; Marvin Lewis, for turning a moribund team around and jumping over the two best teams in the AFC a year ago; Sean Payton, for running a peerless offense and fixing what ailed the Saints; Norv Turner, for the Chargers finally realizing their potential; and Josh McDaniels, depending on how the Broncos finish.
ROMO'S BEING HONEST, PEOPLE. From Jon of Montclair, N.J.: "Peter, Interesting contrast on Tony Romo, from being totally insulated from any and all media on page one, to your third quote of the week citing Tony Dungy's critique!''
I've had 30 or 40 people comment on this, and I buy what Romo said -- that he's not reading the papers. The Cowboys as a team were shown a videotape of Tony Dungy's comment saying they had no chance against the Saints.
AN MVP QUERY. From Daniel Balcombe of San Diego: "Before casting your MVP vote, will you please research the win/loss records against winning teams this season? One of the things that is often cited in the case of the 1972 Dolphins is how soft their schedule was. I fear an undefeated Colts team will be remembered in the same way. They have a mere 3 games against teams with a winning record! I urge you to take a look at how other MVP candidates fared against winning teams and then you might consider voting Rivers ahead of Manning.''
I have Philip Rivers number two right now, so it's not over. And Rivers has had some quality wins. So that definitely will be on my mind. But if Manning has the best year of his career with two new receivers and a poor running game and the Colts win 15 or 16 ... well, he's going to be hard to beat.
NOW THIS IS WHAT AMERICA IS DYING TO KNOW! From Scott Driver of Shelburne, Vt.: "I know you weren't there this weekend but you often talk about watching the Sunday games in the NBC studios. My question is, do you get to watch them the way most of us do -- i.e. with beers, pizza, wings, nachos, etc.?''
I love Shelburne, by the way, Scott. Been there three or four times, and you live in an absolutely lovely spot. Well, there is food laid out for us -- sandwiches, wraps, a couple of different kinds of soup, bagels and a veggie platter, among other things. Coffee, tea, drinks. No beer, sad to say. But if you think I say dumb things, then I'd really be a fool postgame with a couple of beers in me. Rodney Harrison likes his peanut butter and jelly. After the show, we get food ordered in from a few restaurants nearby. I might have a nice chicken dish, or pasta, or maybe the bison burger from Ted's Montana Grill. Love those Bison Burgers.
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